The United Nations' children's rights convention has been in force for 20 years, but until now it's been hard for children to claim those rights. A new agreement means they can now complain directly to the UN.
They make carpets, break stone, work as house slaves or on plantations. According to children's organizations like UNICEF and Terre des Hommes, between 160 and 215 million children between the ages of five and 17 are forced to work several hours a day.
And what's more, the United Nations' International Labor Organization (ILO) says 115 million of these are regularly exploited and work in dangerous conditions.
Children's rights to health, education, free time and leisure are violated every day despite having been enshrined in the UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child since 1989. Now, minors are being given the opportunity to take their complaints directly to the UN.
The additional protocol for the right to file individual complaints is to be signed on Tuesday in Geneva, Switzerland. "The children's convention is the one UN human rights convention that doesn't contain the individual right to complain," German Family Minister Kristina Schröder told DW. "That's why it's very good that that problem has now been removed."
Millions of children's rights are violated daily.
Schröder is representing Germany at the signing. "We belong to the group of nations that has been pushing this initiative hard since December 2009," she added. "We're very happy that it is being implemented so quickly."
A long road
Jörg Maywald, spokesman for the German National Coalition for the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, says that the right to turn directly to the UN once domestic legal means have been exhausted has proved important in other arenas.
"Children are often unable to represent themselves because of their age," he said. "They don't know the legal routes. The individual complaints protocol makes it possible for children to be represented by their parents, by other adults, or by children's rights organizations."
Should these people exhaust all the legal avenues in their own country, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva is obliged to hear the complaint and is allowed to carry out its own investigations in the country in question.
But Maywald warns against unrealistic expectations. "You shouldn't overestimate this instrument," he said. "The process doesn't result in a court verdict. In the end, the committee can only make a recommendation. It's a long process that takes in particularly severe violations of children's rights."
In the case of Germany, Maywald added, this means it could affect the rights of refugee children. According to German law, underage refugees that have entered the country can be taken into custody and deported back home, a practice that contravenes the UN convention, which places the welfare of the child above national laws.
Schröder has no clear answer to this conflict. "The government takes the position that everything that happens in Germany must be in line with the UN children's rights convention," she said. "But in future we have to check whether this is the case."
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Breakthrough for children's rights
The original children's rights convention came into force in 1990, and it applies to every child in the world up to his or her 18th birthday. Except for the US and Somalia, all UN members have joined it, which theoretically makes the convention the UN's strongest human rights agreement.
The pact identifies 10 basic rights that are designed to safeguard a child's survival and development, to protect him or her against discrimination, and to guarantee a right to participation. "It applies to all children, even to the very young," Maywald explained. "We know that in schools and other places like courts of law, children are not always heard or given the right to participate."
Schröder says that schools also play an important part in teaching children their rights - and not only them. "When people travel to Germany, they must be informed what rights people - and children - in this country have," she said.
The individual right to file complaints is seen as an important step towards strengthening children's rights. It will only come into force once at least 10 nations have ratified the additional protocol.
Then it remains to be seen whether the move will help child soldiers, underage prostitutes, house slaves and cotton-picking children to walk the long legal path to the UN committee in Geneva and claim their rights to education, health and free time.
Author: Mirjam Gehrke / bk
Editor: Nicole Goebel